Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Blasts from the pasts!

A bit of a break from the usual posts here. A wee bit of news and some pics of my work. I've been carving in preparation of the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in August - it appears that the art gallery are not beginning their extension yet so I should squeeze another festival out of it - which is kind of embarrassing in a way, as that's three years on the trot in which the rumour has been flying and I've been telling people I won't be there next year!  Oh well, fingers crossed... but it might be the last (I'm learning to never say 'never'). 

Most of you know that I operate this business on a small scale - I usually do the Festival and head off to sunnier climes. Should the Festival become less of a viable option in the future I may spread my wings and try other locations in the summer season. So if anybody out there is reading this and knows of Celtic/Medieval festivals - anywhere -  please leave a comment and let me know about them. I like the idea of taking the stones on the road. 

So, that's enough news, now a few pictures of my work. I've been meaning to post some recent work but I'm currently experiencing technical issues so here's some oldies. All the following are long gone but please feel free to share the pics and cite my site, so to speak. 

This first sequence of pictures feature a selection of designs that are not traditional. These are my own creations and therefore very rare indeed. Using stone from the Solway coast as the base stone I carefully scribed around the insets and then used diamond gouging tools to dig into the base, creating an inset into which the coloured stone was set with jewellers' glue. The process was very time consuming and difficult. If I have time I would like to create a couple for the Fringe Festival this year. 

Sometimes I shape the stones. Again this is quite laborious and you need to concentrate when filing or grinding down the stone to achieve a smooth edge.  The first was a commission for a girl in Edinburgh, it's a whales tale.  

Below is a Pictish design that I found in some old book somewhere.   I tend to go for the obscurer designs, it is often the overlooked pieces that hold more interest. 

Saying that, this is a famous Pictish Boar design and true to the original it is incised, i.e. the lines are 'cut into' the stone, rather than the relief work I normally practise.

And sometimes I don't even carve stone at all. Bone Mad this one! It's a seal's rib that I found during a sojourn in South Africa. 

And finally one of my Green Men.

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Quality, Zen and Motorbikes - Do you get it?

Having recently finished Zen And The Art of motorcycle Mechanics, by  Robert M. Pirsig, I was inspired to write this post.  I wish I’d read it years ago, well actually I tried and didn't get it at the time.  I’m not going to spoil the plot or the discourse contained within. Suffice to say this is not a conventional book. It's philosophy pinned around a fictional framework. 

The antagonist of the story, Phaedrus, is highly subversive, a radical in the true sense of the word.  In fact I'm going to elaborate here because I feel that term has been tainted over the past decade-and-a-half. Radicalism Western history were movements that sought to subvert the political paradigm of that period, in an attempt to kickstart social/political reform. The radical movement that flourished in Britain during the late 1700’s is a classic exemplar (other radicals would include the Leveller movement of the mid 1600's and the Diggers). Essentially the organisation of folks, mainly from the so-called lower orders, who mobilised to fight for things such as the right to vote, better working/living conditions, education for the people etc. Radical movements in this sense include the Suffragettes, the Anarchists of the late 19th and early 20th centuries: those seeking a fairer social and political climate through means other than signing online petitions. Even the student protests that flared across the globe in the late 1960s were ‘radical'. 

So the word’s been demonised by the media's fixation with Radicalised Muslims and with terrorism etc - but these are movements to whom the notion of liberty is far removed. Although the term radical may be  interpreted as the instigation of ‘fundamental’ change to a political situation or governance, I believe, if we apply common sense, we can see that the student movements of the 60’s and the machinations of IS are ‘fundamentally' opposed. There is nothing radical in IS. So with that in mind when I say Pirsigs’ book contains a radical idea please don’t get me wrong. 

As I've said I’m not going to spoil the book for you. What I wish to discuss here  is a  key element that flows through the story. This being the concept of Quality which is expounded as  something unquantifiable yet concrete. It exists, though we can’t measure it. In ways this ties into the Taoist conception of Zen (however Phaedrus elaborates the details much more eloquently than I). 

The reason this concept struck me, and why I’m writing so fervently about it in this blog, is that it’s so relevant to what I do. It is relevant to all of us. Now, here’s the tricky part, Quality in Pirsig’s opinion is something that permeates everything, but it is something many of us are steadily losing awareness of. He explains it thus:

Quality, or its absence doesn’t reside in either the subject or the object… at the moment of pure quality there is no subject and there is no object... At the moment of pure quality subject and object are identical… it is this identity that is the basis of craftsmanship in all the technical arts. And it is this identity that modern, dualistically conceived technology lacks. The creator feels no particular sense of identity with it. The owner feels no particular sense of identity with it. The user of it feels no particular sense of identity with it. Hence, by Phaedrus’ definition it has not Quality.

The book seeks to help the reader realise that the technically minded person and the artistic minded should not be at odds with each other. They are products of  dualism, or as the book's narrator terms it Classic or Romantic modes of thought. I’m the latter  - I’m totally unpractical, an artist baffled by mechanics and technical things. But I really got the book, and again the reason I’m dropping chucks of quotation in this post is because I’m hoping you’ll get it too! It is the idea  that craftsmanship is a tool for the manifestation  of Quality into the world. The following quote, though written nearly fifty years ago, is even more relevant in contemporary Western culture when wholesale, unadulterated consumerism is stripping away this sense of Quality. Again let’s try to expound this concept here:

Such personal transcendence of conflicts with technology doesn’t have to involve motorcycles. Of course, it can be at a level as simple as sharpening a kitchen knife or sewing a dress or mending a broken chair. In each case there’s a beautiful way of doing it and and ugly way of doing it, and in arriving at the high quality, beautiful way of doing it,  both an ability of being able to see what ‘looks good’ and an ability to understand the underlying methods to arrive at that ‘good’ are needed. Both classic and romantic  understandings of Quality must be combined. 

The nature of our culture is such that if you were to look for instruction on how to do any of these jobs, the instruction would always give only one understanding of Quality, the classic. It would tell you how to hold the blade while sharpening the knife, or how to use a sewing machine, or how to mix and apply glue with the presumption that once these underlying methods were applied, ‘good’ would naturally follow. The ability to see directly what ‘looks good’ would be ignored. 

The result is rather typical of modern technology, an overall dullness of appearance so depressing that it must be overlaid with a veneer of ’style' to make it acceptable. And that, to anyone who is sensitive to romantic Quality, just makes it all the worse. Now it’s not just depressingly dull, it’s also phoney.  Stylised cars and stylised outboard motors and stylised typewriters and stylised clothes. Stylised refrigerators filled with stylised food in stylised kitchens in stylised homes. Plastic stylised toys for stylised children, who at Christmas and birthdays are in style with their stylish parents… it’s the style that gets you; technological ugliness syruped over with romantic phoniness in an effort to produce beauty and profit by people who, though stylish, don’t know where to start because no one’s ever told them there’s such a thing as Quality in this world and it’s real, not style. Quality isn’t something you lay on top of subjects and objects like tinsel on a christmas tree. Real Quality must be the source of the subjects and objects, the cone from which the tree must start. 

That makes the hairs on the back of my neck rise. It's so true. It's the way we should approach everything.  Of course being a craftsperson it's doubly pertinent but it can be applied to many layer of our lives.  Anyway, I hope in reading this you ‘get it’ too, because this notion of Quality affects us all. 

Monday, June 12, 2017

Into The Underworld

Into the Duat. 

This week I’m going to take us on a journey into the depths of human psyche. Down, down into the underworld. This is another subject that fascinates me, especially regarding early conceptions of The Land Of The Dead. I touched upon the subject in my bird symbolism post, mentioning the evidence for belief in a solar boat that plunged into the underworld by night and the association with migrating birds. 

Once the world was governed by our concept and belief in Myth. Things were different then, we thought differently. Some scientists and psychologists are convinced that certain faculties of the 'modern mind' are the result of a continuing evolution of the brain. Whatever the theory the fact is attested in the art and sculpture left behind from those far off days. 

That ancient pagan religion permeated the very fabric of everyday life is an obvious indication that folks viewed the world very differently than we do. How you view your surrounding affects your thought process... it's as simple as that. Long before the renaissance rediscovered Plato and Greek philosophy, long before these same philosophers syncretised their accounts of creation and our place within the world we were part of the world in a deeper sense than we understand now. 

The roots of this separation actually lie in mystery cults preceding Christianity, but the Bible undoubtably reinforced our separation from the world: Yahweh's world was made for human use, and we, as images of the Maker, were set higher than the earth and the animals. With the advance of science many shrugged off the mantle of religion but maintained this separation.  However, previous to the anthropomorphisation* of the gods  there was no 'it' and 'us', little to separate us subjectively from the world around. We were in it. Humans and myth were inseparable. If we understand this then I think we are closer to understanding the distant past. I think C.G Jung grasped this concept, guessing that such a thought process was buried deep in our subconscious, despite our modern consciousness. Myth lived on in the form of archetypes.  

In Egyptian myth the sun god, Ra, rides his solar ship into the underworld where he battles with Apep, the great serpent, for the duration of the night, aided by a team of deities, until the ship emerges once more. The symbolism to illustrate this point is poignant, and though myth, it illustrates our eternal struggle against darkness - for it is not only the darkness of a single night that the sun’s absence represents. It is the absence of fertility, the onset of winter, both physically and mentally. As an allegory the tale works on various levels, for it is also the battle against death, which even the gods succumbed to. The Egyptian Book Of The Dead gave instructions of how the soul should navigate the Duat, or Underworld of the ancient Egyptians. The Cult of Ra flourished from at least 2400 BC. 

Sporting his ram's head form, Ra would set out on his boat to navigate the rivers of the  Duat. There he and his companions would face Apep, or Apophis, the massive chaos serpent that wished to swallow Ra forever. The defeating of this monster and the sun god's subsequent triumphant return as the rising sun was one of rebirth and victory over darkness.

Anubis weighs the Heart of the dead against the Feather of Ma'at.

The Duat was ruled over by Osiris, the God of the dead. It was portrayed as a remote and inaccessible realm. Here the souls of the dead would be judged. Their hearts were weighed on great scales by Anubis. Each heart was set against the feather of Ma'at,  goddess of truth and justice. Those unworthy would remain in the Duat, Those who were worthy were sent to Aaru, a more hospitable zone of the Underworld. 

To the Greeks Hades was a miserable place ruled by the god of the same name and his consort Persephone  It was grey and gloomy, with loads of phantasms sort of hanging around. Not exactly the place to be. And yet, the people seemed to accept this concept for eons. Hades was the jailor and the underworld was where the souls existed under his dominion. Similarly the Japanese had Yomi, another gloomy realm. But these weren't  places where the dead were tormented or punished, unlike the Christian Hell, where sinners went to be tortured by demons and devils, while Yahweh (The Christian god) looked on. 

Hades taking the hound for a wee stroll.

Elsewhere the underworld is kinda jazzed up, a sort of stop over on the way forward, a terminal terminal en route for the next world.  Famously the Celts believed in an afterlife in the soul's transmigration in other worlds. Similar notions on the theme in which souls were birthed back on old Earth to live it through again, until they learned that materialism is a no-no arise in Eastern traditions. 

The Celts, like the Vikings, were of old stock, they held tenaciously to their tribal whiles, even as they were pushed  to the fringes of  Europe by the Romans. The Celts raided cattle, lived with honour and possessed great gusto for life, just as those early Grecians of Homeric tales did. They were warriors not soldiers. That the Celts are reported speeding naked into battle perhaps projects their renown as brave warriors, whose beliefs in rebirth enabled them to assuage  fears of  Roman spear points. They were battling now, and later they’d battle in some other realm, so what? Though the Celts appear to have no clear cut underworld as such, there must have been some that did - it was named Annwn. It was a place of bounty, where people ate and drank their full from a great magical cauldron. There were many Celtic otherworlds and fairy realms, some of which the dead visited.

The underworld wasn't only a place of death though. In Norse cosmology the underworld is populated by giants and wolves. Odin, The High One, used his powers as a psychopomp to guide spirits down below, or to visit -  for only Odin could gain the secrets known by the dead (see my Odin post). He held court there, in his great hall, Valhalla, surrounded by the slain heroes, banqueting and fighting as they had in life. Indeed the Norse concept is far removed from gloomy Hades. Here warriors revelled in perpetual glory. But of course, there was also Niflheimr where the goddess Hel resided. To her hall, Èljúdnir (meaning rain-dampened) went the treacherous, the murderers and thieves. Its gate was guarded by a fierce dog called Garmr, much resembling the three-headed dog Cerberus of Greek legend.

18th century Prose Edda manuscript
with Hel in the lower Right.
She was half white and half blue.
Light and shade. 

 I could list every culture’s version of the underworld, or land of the dead, the Heaven of the Judaeo-Christians, the Nirvana of the Buddhists… every culture has its version. Originally, preceding later myths, the underworld was the domain of the Great Mother. For it was her womb that sprang forth life, but her other role was as tomb. This is reflected in the myths featuring great monsters and serpents, such as Typhon and Tiamat, which are always born of the Earth Mother, and though these monsters originally represent chaos, they are  overcome by humanity in the guise of the Sky-god/dragon-slayer**. Thus they are consigned to underworld duties, hence their Chthonic*** association. 

Exploring themes of souls and underworlds in avery different vein is a wee web-comic that I’ve been working on. It's called Nu-City Blues. Please go look and comment if you have time. It’s all free. 

My Webcomic - Nu-City Blues.

There is much to be made of the myths, too much for a humble blog post. But I’d like to suggest that there is something edifying and very human in this search for some form of world beyond this. I’m very much a believer in the intuition of the ancients. I think they could tell us a thing or two about the world - The real world, before we categorised it into abstraction, and filtered it out. 

Sure,  afterworlds and heavens have been used by the powers-that-be, those self-serving priests, who wished to monopolise the mind and soul of mankind. Mostly such sects turned these concepts into places to be desired (in the sky - heaven), or feared (in the ground - Hell). Heaven was only obtainable if you did not sin; the value of sin being set by the moral standards of the elite -  very often those that set them were/are abusers of such systems. 

How many people lived in absolute terror that they might go to hell for coveting their neighbour’s wife? Or having sinful thoughts? The Big Brother of the mind enforced by doctrine and sadists from the pulpit. A sad thing indeed. Personally, if there’s an afterlife, or and underworld, etc, I’m pretty certain it’s open to all. Hell exists solely in the minds' of humans.

From the Basilica of San Petronius, Verona, Giovanni De Moderna. Fifteenth Century A.D.


* Assigning human attributes to something - for more on Human Gods see the last post.

** Much spare time has been spent researching Serpent mythology, and a vast part of it links to this topic. This is a tome in the making -  a real journey through time… watch this space folks!

*** I love this word - it means subterranean.


Gods and Goddesses Of The Ancient World - Compiled by L.F.C. 
Who's who in classical Mythology - Michael Grant and John Hazel
Symbols of Transformation - C.G Jung 

Sunday, June 4, 2017

Human Gods

The Temple Of Apollo At Delphi - Photo taken in April 2017 by the artist.

It is said that when the Celtic warrior Brennus stood at the temple of Apollo in Delphi he looked upon the effigies and laughed. He mocked that the Greeks portrayed their deities in human form, for it is said that the Celts did not. However a couple of centuries later, under Roman subjugation, the Celtic peoples would  worship very human looking deities.  Under Pax Romana it appears that Celtic gods and goddesses were often paired with Roman equivalents. This is often confusing, for example there are numerous Mars' and Jupiters - all bearing their Celtic appellation too, such as Taranis-Jupiter. They also became very Classical in style.

The Celtic deities appear to have been localised gods and goddesses, probably evolving from local land spirits that were believed to inhabit certain locations. What I find fascinating about these Genus Loci, or local land spirits, is that many must have possessed similar attributes to each other. Thus once the Romans had conquered the Celts, their gods, or spirit deities, inherited the forms of the invader's classical, humanised deities. 

The Roman gods were refined versions of Grecian deities. Jupiter is of course Zeus, Mercury is Hermes etc, etc. My viewpoint is that many of the Grecian deities were personifications of the multifaceted sides of human emotion, echoing very human sensibilities - they separated the emotional and physical elements of humanity and gave these parts names and attributes - Athena, goddess of love, Apollo the shining hero. In this manner the ancient Grecian gods gave credence to people’s emotions. And the populace were allowed to express these emotions openly, for better or worse. 

This anthropomorphising of deities came at a price for now the gods and goddesses were on an equal footing. Though grand in scale and idea, they were brought down to human level, bestowed human values -  hence their shortcomings were easier to recognise, beheld, belittled and inevitably, despised. 

Zeus with his bolts of lightning

 However it is interesting to note that the Christian notion of God (and the stereotypical bearded guy was not originally the religion’s intention) is a very Zeus like image*. There again, Yahweh, the tribal Hebrew deity who appeared to ‘win out’ against the other gods (relegating them to the realm of angels and demons), was originally a sky god too. 

Archetype or Indo-European influence? The jury is still out on that one and I'm also undecided. 

But getting back to the Celts. OK, the deities of the barbarous tribes that proliferated Europe, from the Neolithic to the early Iron-Age, hold a deeper sense of mystery for me.  The tribes whose belief systems were  spirit based are the same from which Brennus came. The whole idea of his mocking the Grecian deities because of their human form might be Grecian propaganda, but it is well attested that the Celts preferred not to create representations of their deities. I like the image of the bearded barbarian mocking the human gods, heaping his distain upon the exemplars of civilisation. It's endearing ;)

Taranis-Jupiter, another Sky god plus bolts!


This similarity is evidence of the deep influence that the Hellenes had upon the Bible. They deeply influenced the early Christian and Gnostic mystery cults that came out of Alexandria in the early centuries AD. Many ancient Greek philosophers also played a role in this, unwittingly of course - knowledge, ideas were appropriated and assimilated into the, then, radical religious cult of monotheism. 


Jesus Christ, Sun of God - Neal Monique
Greek Mythology - John Pinsent